Monday, December 21, 2009

We Stand on the Shoulders of Dumb Luck

Seven bits is sufficient to map all 26 English letters in upper and lower case, the digits 0-9, various punctuation and other symbols, plus 32 control characters.

In contrast, Chinese contains (depending on the counting) 9500 - 22,000 characters. To read Japanese requires several different alphabets totaling over 2000 characters. Arabic, more than 200.

There is no way of knowing why the Greeks moved from logographic / syllabic writing to a true alphabet. The result, though, was a sparse symbol set to represent spoken language.

Without a sparse symbol set, economic printing is impossible. The Chinese invented movable type printing 400 years before Gutenberg, but their teeming multitude of logographs made type sets expensive and difficult to use: how do you collate 9500 characters?

Without economic printing, widespread literacy is pointless.

Without widespread literacy, intellectual progress is glacial.

Without the Latin alphabet, computers would have never happened. Even ignoring literacy and intellectual progress, without a sparse symbol set, the complexity required to map and depict language would have presented a "can't get there from here" problem. (While not pivotally important in comparison with other alphabetic languages, modern English has no diacriticals or, — absent a very few optional spellings — ligatures.)

An small arbitrary change led ultimately to decidedly non-trivial consequences.

There just might be an evolution analog in here somewhere.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Help Wanted

Since juniority does not have its privileges*, Christmas came early to my house. Apparently someone was listening several months ago when I pondered getting a Kindle, then rejected the idea: spendy vs. how hard is it to get myself to the library?

Now that I have one, I need help knowing what to jam in it.

Over to you, with thanks in advance.

What this means is that there's not a snowball's change in Hades I will be around on, or even near, Christmas. Catch when catch can.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Snow Marge

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Life During Wartime

(In a case of independent invention—you will have to trust me on this—Gaw and I were writing about roughly the same thing, and using the same vignette approach, at the same time. However, since my lag between conception and production is typically best measured using continental drift, this is coming in a very distant second. And not just in terms of the calendar.)

The last couple weeks have brought an avalanche of books and articles (scroll down a fair bit) about the collapse of first the Warsaw Pact, then the Soviet Union. Twenty-one years ago, the ugly, unshaven head of monolithic, hegemonic communism looked like going on forever, crushing souls every step of the way.

Twenty years ago, gone.

My children are 16 and 15. Despite the interval of a mere couple decades, that world, the one that had revolved around two diametrically opposed organizing principles, and under the ever present specter of nuclear war, is to them terra incognita, no more real, and perhaps more perplexing, than a badly plotted vampire novel. Indeed, for anyone on the sunny side of 45, that whole era scarcely registers.

For me, awareness started early, at age 5, in 1960. I was a preternatural reader. Some years afterwards, my dad told me of a time when we had gone to someone else's house for burger-burn. One of the moms there told my dad "Isn't he cute, he acts just like he is reading the newspaper." To which my dad said "Oh, but he is."

From nearly the outset, then, I didn't have the parental filter between me and the daily news. Even to an otherwise garden variety five year old, there was obviously something implacably awful about Communism.

Which put me one up on those who awarded the Pulitzer prize to Duranty, and a largish heap of liberal arts professors.

Throughout my tenure in grade school, we had air raid drills. The local civil defense alert siren would go off on the first Monday of the month at 10:00 am. We were to stop whatever we were doing, and crouch under our desks.

Having just read about the Cuban missile crisis, and nuclear weapons, I knew two things: it was going to happen and nothing, least of all those desks, was going to help.

Ten years later, I was alone at home when there was a sudden, earth splitting, ear shattering, roar. Knowing the war had started, I ran outside, looking in the direction of downtown LA for the mushroom cloud, knowing full well that death was only moments away.

Nothing. And no sign whatsoever of what had caused all that commotion.

Until the newspaper showed up the next day. For reasons I can't remember, some F-4 pilot did some flathatting, which included going right over my house at treetop level.

As an F-111 pilot, I played a walk-on part in the Cold War. It was a dangerous airplane, more inclined than any I have heard of to rip your head off and ram it down your throat. Handing that thing over to competitive young men in the throes of testosterone poisoning didn't help matters. With regularity that would now be appalling, but then routine, the machines and their crews got splattered across the landscape.

I am not proud to admit this, but their deaths accorded to the rest of us unearned glory.

But then, I suppose that is the fuel on which armies run.

My first tour in England started just after Maggie Thatcher became PM. England was then plagued by strikes and the likes of Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill, and Michael Foote, all determined to nationalize the means of production.

I don't recall that troika apologizing for having less of a clue than a five year old.

A couple times a year, the base went on a week long exercise. The scenario was always the same, and mirrored NATO planning: The USSR invented some pretext, which led to the Warsaw Pact coming through the Fulda Gap, and then the rest of the inner German border, in overwhelming force. In short order, NATO's inferiority in men and materiel proved progressively inadequate to holding off the red horde, and as the exercise reached its end, the only alternative to abject surrender was total war.

Whereupon we would stop flying and do a load-out: two very real nuclear weapons on each airplane, destined for pre-planned targets in the the northwestern USSR.

Some guys joked that they would fly to the Azores instead, and be in charge of the world's only remaining nuclear power.

Me, I figured to roll inverted and take it nose first into the Baltic at 1000 mph.

In 1983, President Reagan was intent on putting nuclear armed Pershing missiles in Europe to counter the USSR's deployment of SS-20 IRBMs. This aroused no small amount of opposition from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, for whom no amount of moral equivalence was too much.

At one point, they decided they were going to ring RAF Upper Heyford with protestors. They chose carefully: one of the Queen's roads went right through the center of the base, which meant the perimeter they needed to surround was much smaller than other American bases.

Our wing commander had other ideas. We were to report on Sunday evening with enough stuff to get us through a week. The CND might be able to close off the base, but they weren't going to stop us flying.

Our flying orders changed, too. Ordinarily, it was something like free play: takeoff, do stuff, and bring it back in a couple hours in a re-usable condition, and without phone calls. Instead, we were to be gone for just long enough to fill the minimum amount of currency squares, the spend rest of the fuel beating up the pattern.

Good Lord there were a lot of planes; more, really, than approach control, tower and some pilots were prepared to handle. I was flying an instrument approach, and had just been handed off to tower when I heard "Gambler 12, base, gear down, touch and go", which meant some guy had just come off the "perch", and was making a steep descending 180 degree turn towards the runway.

In theory, I had the right of way, and he should have come off the perch so as to roll out on final with sufficient distance behind me.

No harm in looking, though. Whereupon I saw the bottom of a 'vark that was going to hit me if I didn't do something about it. In truth, cleaning up, stroking a little afterburner and taking it around would have sufficed. Somehow, though, merely sufficing just wasn't enough. After all, getting more spacing by altering course to the right and using every bit of afterburner Pratt & Whitney put in the engines could be plausibly explained as, umm, a prudent response to a near mid-air.

As to the low altitude high speed pass right over the Queen's highway, well, that just couldn't be helped. And I insist I was saluting the protestors as I went by.

The CND packed it in on Tuesday. Coincidence? I think not.

Behind the Irony Curtain

In the summer of 1988 I visited East Berlin, the first time I had come into direct contact with communism. So, in a very real sense, until then I had been employed to oppose something read about, but not seen: a phantasm.

Going through Checkpoint Charlie really was like passing through the looking glass, getting a day pass to mingle with the prisoners. Everything was gray and shabby, including the people. Some buildings still showed the spray of machine gun fire from WWII. There was a big department store that had thousands of great deals on items not in stock. I went to the Soviet WWII memorial, and saw about the war from their point of view in the theatre there. The screen looked like it had once been a bed sheet, only grayer. Almost all the seats were broken, and the film had been repaired many times, probably with scotch tape. It needed one more time during my viewing, when the projector jammed. Among many things my kids will never have any direct experience with—slide rules and dial phones being two examples—is what a movie looks like when it stops: a frozen frame, then a slow darkening, then a brown circle becoming a white hole as the film melts.

After the movie, I went to Alexander Platz (in more shameless ripping off, scroll down for the picture). The most prominent feature there is the television tower. The ball at the top is reflective.

When the sun is out, its reflection looks just like the Christian cross.

The most overwhelming impression from my visit, even more than the pervasive shabbiness, was the sinking feeling that the Cold War would go on for decades.

Fifteen months later, it was essentially game over.

What should have been, in retrospect, extremely obvious was that if the Germans couldn't make communism work, no one could.

In mid-1989, before the wall fell, there was a clear sign the gig was up. Shortly after takeoff from an airbase in Poland, a Soviet MiG-23 suffered a compressor stall. Being a single engine fighter, the pilot punched out.

Whereupon the engine recovered, and the now pilotless airplane, apparently freedom loving, headed west. NATO's air defense radars spotted the plane while it was still over East Germany, and scrambled a pair of F-15s to intercept while trying to find out through the Berlin Joint Air Control Center (where Russians and Americans worked in the same room) what the heck was going on.

The Soviets had no clue; they thought the thing had crashed into the Baltic.

The Eagles followed the Flogger until it reached France. Ultimately, it ran out of gas and plunged into a French farm house, killing an 18 year old Belgian.

Coincidentally, the following week we got an in-depth intelligence briefing about the Warsaw Pact air defense system that had been months in the making.

The briefing's conclusion? Their air defenses were rated "excellent".

Where I become an international man of mystery.

Our intel briefings were duly warning us about two new and very dangerous Soviet surface-to-air missile systems, the SA-10 and the SA-12. The briefings included artist conceptions, labeled Top Secret, of the missiles and their launchers, which were roughly as detailed as a five year old might manage with crayons.

Which also happened to be around when I visited Prague. It was a warm late spring day, and all the strolling got me thirsty. I stepped into a 7-11sky for a Coke, and noticed on the magazine rack a military enthusiast magazine. On the cover was an up close color picture of an SA-12 on its launcher; inside were photos of the SA-10. I snapped it up for 275 persuaders (about 38 US cents), and proudly gave it to the intel folks when I got home.

The intel briefing the following week still had the top secret crayola drawings.

Then in August 1991 I visited Moscow and Leningrad. The most awful places I have ever been. I had read Hedrick Smith's book The Russians. Words failed him; they will fail me even more thoroughly.

In Moscow, the hotel for foreigners was the Космос, cryllic for Cosmos. Pronouncing Космос the way it looks like it is spelled gets closer to reality. The lobby, the size of a football field, had dustballs the size of rich ladies' poodles, and more prostitutes per square foot than anyplace else on Earth, including even Congress during the State of the Union address. I changed $20 US for rubles; thank goodness I didn't swap more, as those rubles were no more spendable than broken shoelaces. I noticed all the cars, crappy as they were, had no windshield wipers: to avoid theft, because there were none to be had, they were kept in the gloveboxes unless it was actually raining.

The hotel food was execrable. I soon found that having hard currency was a passport through the looking glass. On one side the Soviet Union: dingy, decrepit, aggressively ugly. On the other, the West, in the form of an Irish Pub, or Pizza Hut. The largest McDonalds in the world at the time was in Moscow: the line to get in the place was 300 yards long.

I wasn't prepared for how beautiful young Russian women are, and appalled by how quickly the workers' paradise ground them down. The human body is not built for standing in endless lines. I saw women in their thirties with varicose veins and open sores on their lower legs.

The coup was the day after I left. Even now I wonder if it was something I said.

Somewhere in my pile of photos awaiting the scanner is one of the last photographs of Dzerzhinsky's statue in front of the Lubyanka.

Shortly after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, a particularly good editorialist at the Times of London, whose name I wish I could remember, wrote a long piece, which I wish I could find, listing by name, twenty or so prominent intellectuals who were apologists for, and sympathizers with, the soul crushing awfulness of communism.

I don't think one of them apologized for having less sense than a five year old, either.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The End is Nigh

Last night I was driving home from Anchorage. With thirty-ish minutes en route, I gave NPR a try. Having tuned in just after the top of the hour, I missed the name of the program.

The first segment was given over to a guy who knew the climate was warming, and within 50 years it was going to cook us all, and nuclear power was going to be no help at all, and we are DOOOMED. Unless we change our ways. Apparently, we are too selfish, owning things that we really don't use very much: that means too much consumption, which is why we are DOOOMED. Unless we learn to ditch our individualistic ways, and think in terms of community. I almost get (as in, not by a long shot, but at least not needing to add a half dozen new syllables to "preposterous") how that would work with, say, bikes. But my living room couch? Toothbrush? Oh, and the other problem: waaay too many people.

Then segue to James Lovelock. Nuclear power is good. Waaay too many people. Gaia will fix it: within 50 years, though, the earth will have gotten so hot that the population will drop by 90%, with the remainder living in isolated habitable areas like the Rocky Mountains. And they will be smarter, because of evolution. And it is all a done deal by now; resistance is futile. I wish he could be a little more precise about the end times. I'd feel a right fool if I pay off my 30 year mortgage in 15, only have all turn to toast before the echo of the last payment faded away. Especially since I could have spent all that money, oh, snowmobiles, power boats and fast cars.

One more segue, this time to Margart Atwood flogging her latest novel. It seems she is determined to dominate the dystopia niche. Better yet, the Copenhagen doom-mongering is the perfect tie in.

The garage door closed behind me before the outro, so I till don't know the show's name.

I'm guessing "Sack Cloth and Ashes". A weekly feature supported by generous donations from the Pew Charitable Trust.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The problem of the second derivative

According to the World Meteorological Organization, The year 2009 is likely to rank in the top 10 warmest on record since the beginning of instrumental climate records in 1850, according to data sources compiled by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Sounds pretty serious. In fact, it might be.

However, parsing this portion of the press release indicates that what it doesn't say is just as telling as what it does. Clearly, since 2009 ranks in the warmest 10 years, warming is continuing.

Maybe, maybe not. Firing up the WaybackMachine© to the days of yore when I was proficient in Calculus, it is worth thinking about derivatives. When we hear of changes in the Earth's average temperature over time, that is the first derivative: ∆T/∆t, the rate of change in a given quantity at a given point. At the moment, with moment defined as the time span between roughly 1950 and 2000, the value of the first derivative is roughly -- and working from memory here -- 0.2C/decade.

Taking things one step further, the second derivative describes how much the rate of change is changing. Think of a car accelerating from a stop to its top speed. At each tick of the clock, the car has an acceleration rate. However, over time that rate changes: it is very high at the start, and reaches zero at its top speed. The second derivative is negative, strongly at first, before reaching zero at the same instant the car is no longer accelerating.

So what does this have to do with global warming? Global warming can have come to a stop, and still have the warmest years in the record. If average temperatures are no longer increasing, the annual rate of change is zero, and the rate of change of the rate of change is also zero, just like a car that is no longer accelerating.

Taking one step further out on the intellectual limb, this appears to present an insoluble problem for AGW. So long as CO2 concentrations are increasing, there are only three reasons the second derivative can be near zero:
  • The rate of change is unchanged, but this is excluded because none of the previous ten years are the warmest.

  • Feedback is much less positive than AGW adherents believe.

  • The earth is getting less energy from the sun than it did before 2000.

Taken as a whole, which average global temperature does, the rate of change can decrease to zero only if the Earth's energy balance reaches zero.

Near as I can tell, there is no explanation that is not fatal to AGW. So far as I have read, this has gone completely unmentioned.

That must mean I am wrong. But I can't figure out how.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Clueless Hysteria

The Economist is a fully read in member of the Church of Anthropological Climate Alteration (CACA), Hysteria Synod. While I think that position will find no confirmation in the fullness of time, that conclusion is really based on not a heck of a lot more than belief. So, while I find the newspaper's weekly ration of attributing every bad thing other than the heartbreak of psoriasis to climate change tiresome, as a practical matter it isn't possible to demonstrate their belief is any more beliefy than my belief.

Included in this year's annual prognostication issue, The World in 2010, is an article on the plight of the Arctic, On Thin Ice. Here is the nut graf:
For the past three years, the vast cap of shining-white ice covering the Arctic has melted away in summer to an area that would have been unbelievable just a decade ago. At the end of the winter, the frozen seas cover 15.7m square kilometres (6.1m square miles), an area more than one and a half times that of the United States. By September the ice regularly used to melt to 7m square kilometres. But since a great collapse in 2007 the figure has been closer to 4.3m square kilometres. ... As well as this reduction in area, scientists believe that, hidden beneath the surface, the ice is growing ever thinner, setting up the Arctic for another sudden, catastrophic collapse. The big question now is when the ice will disappear totally each summer. There will be an answer in 2010.
According to the author, which matches what I have read elsewhere, estimates for a summer ice free Arctic ocean range from as early as 2013 to no later than 2050.

When that happens, it will be the biggest and fastest change to the Earth’s surface ever made by human influence. The ice, poised between freezing and melting, is an especially sensitive indicator of the planet’s temperature. When it disappears, it will be a disaster for all the Arctic life that depends on ice, from the polar bears that walk on it to the tiny creatures that live within it.

And it will be a disaster for the planet. That great dome of ice reflects sunlight back into space throughout the 24 hours a day of polar summer sunshine. When it turns sea-dark and soaks up the sun, global warming will really take off.

Now we get to play a little game of Spot the Blinkered Philistine Pig Ignorance. Embedded somewhere in these quotes is an incontestable example of rampaging ignorance. What is it?

As it happens, the author, Alun Anderson, has been a research biologist, and edited New Scientist from 1992 to 2005. Apparently, that position did not entail actually knowing basic science.

Just as apparently, the editors of The Economist are equally unencumbered.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


Yes, US healthcare costs too much. Yes, too many people in the US have no health care coverage. Yes, there is administrative overhead by the shovel load. Yes, insurance companies can be arbitrary and foolish.

But there might be worse things. I noticed this snippet from The Economist of a couple weeks back, in an article about "guaranteeing" the delivery of public services:
So, for example, existing targets for NHS patients—to have hospital treatment within 18 weeks of referral by their family doctor, and to see a cancer specialist within two—will become legal entitlements.
Four and a half months? This is the goal to which we are striving?

Then, adding nutty to pointless, the Democrats have cooked up a new way to pay for the additional wait: tax cosmetic surgery at 5%. Not only is there a whiff of sexism here, since women are the primary consumers, but there is no rational way to tax buxomizing without also grabbing a slice of the orthodontia pie. Straightening teeth is nearly a right of passage, for which parents already pay dearly. Every time the hope arises that politicians could not possibly be more stupid, politicians promptly dash it.

But, hey, wait, never mind. There is no need to worry about taxing anything! health care premiums will not go up, because, according to Timothy Noah at Slate,
... fully 59 percent [of those purchasing health care through exchanges] won't be paying sticker price. That's because their incomes will be sufficiently low to qualify them for a government subsidy toward the purchase of their health insurance. For this subsidized majority, premiums will be 56 percent to 59 percent lower than they would be if health reform were not passed.
Where the term "government subsidy" absolutely must mean Totally Magical Fairy Dust Money.

There are real issues with health care provision, ranging from moral hazard through tax code distortions to whether the concept of "insurance" is even appropriate.

I don't have to be in favor of the status quo to conclude Obamagrrr stands about as much chance of success as a bunch of monkeys trying to fly by mounting a football.